Clint Hurdle has done just about everything in baseball, but it’s taken him 45 years in the game “to get the best job that I’ve ever had.”
Hurdle, 65, was a long-time player, coach and manager in the big leagues – including five years as a coach and part of eight seasons as manager of the Colorado Rockies. He was in Spokane last week in his latest capacity as special assistant to Rockies general manager Bill Schmidt to meet with Indians players.
He’s part scout, part coach, part guru and part counselor. He travels between the Rockies’ four full-season affiliates and their Arizona Complex League team – and he’s loving every minute of it.
“I’ll try and spend six days, usually the homestand, with our affiliate and just watch,” he said after batting practice last Thursday at Avista Stadium. “I use my eyes, use my ears to delve into the young managers, the coaches or something for the players, the pitchers. I’m just trying to be a little GPS system.”
Hurdle gets to visit with all of the Rockies’ minor leaguers throughout the season and relishes the opportunity to help young ballplayers navigate their way toward the major leagues.
“When (Schmidt) reached out to me when he got the full-time job and asked me what I wanted to do, I said, ‘Well, let me ask you a question. Where do you think I can impact most?’ ” Hurdle said. “I have spent a lot of time in player development. So last year, really my responsibilities were kind of take a look under the hood for him.”
An initial impact was helping the Rockies standardize their program throughout the four levels of full-season ball.
“One thing you don’t want to have happen in an organization is when a guy moves from A ball to Double-A he feels like he got traded to a different team,” Hurdle said. “So there’s some staples and some foundational things that needed to be in play and kept consistent.”
There was another element that Hurdle thought needed addressing.
“We had a big year last year,” he said. “We made a lot of positive improvement, a lot of areas and we actually stressed winning last year, which is somewhat counterintuitive to what they talk about in player development a lot.
“But we felt it was important that our kids understand that winning does matter. And we’re just not going to sit there and say, ‘Well, we’re developing players.’ We want to develop winning players. And if you want to have a championship team, you need to develop championship players.”
The Rockies finished third as an organization in wins last season among their affiliates.
“We’ve let (the players) know that we’ve set the bar, now we want to keep pushing it.”
Hurdle is a proponent of promoting players as a group to the next level once they achieve success.
“I do think it helps when they win together along the way. They know what it takes to win, they know who they can count on. They become consistent with their actions, become dependable with their play.”
Dealing with players in their late teens to young 20s is invigorating for Hurdle, but also presents challenges.
“The first time I walked in the door until I was introduced, I’d say 50% of the kids thought, ‘Who’s the old guy with the white hair?’ ” Hurdle said. “There were some that did know – there’s a few pictures inside our complex in Scottsdale (Arizona), but a lot of them didn’t know.
“But when I share stories about players that I’ve had, places I’ve been, and 17 years managing in the big leagues, six years as a hitting coach in the big leagues, 10 years as a player – it starts making sense to them a little bit.”
Hurdle has not only learned to communicate with players via text message and other modern methods, but embraced technology as another tool to help players grow within the organization.
“It has made me feel young,” he said. “This has been refreshing for me. I take these pictures and send them to my buddies and I go, ‘Man, look at this park in Spokane. It’s beautiful. There’s 1,900 people here last night and 105 dogs. I’m having a great night.’ ”
Hurdle finds the learning opportunities “organic” with the minor leaguers.
“They don’t know what they don’t know,” he said. “And I can be like that uncle or, truthfully, the grandfather. Just put an arm around them and say, ‘You know, it’s gonna be all right. What’d you learn here? Here’s what I saw.’ ”
Hurdle recognizes that when MLB reduced the number of minor league teams before last season it compressed the talent in each organization and – whether by design or byproduct – seems to have sped up the promotion process.
“I think we have taken it upon ourselves to get out of the space we were in by making players check a lot of boxes before we ever consider moving,” he said. “And there’s got to be some trust. We talked about trust from them, and we’ve got to show them some trust as well.
“They don’t always have to be hitting .500 for two weeks to move them up. … Give the kids a chance. Let them show you what they can do versus already determining what you think they can’t do.”
When Hurdle was managing the Pittsburgh Pirates, the club was an early adopter of analytics and advanced metrics to evaluate players. He said the Rockies have also taken strides in that area.
“Well, we were behind the learning curve for a long time,” he said. “Probably the bottom of the curve. And we have made it an organizational priority.”
The Rockies have a baseball operations analyst assigned at each level of the minors and employ technology such as the TrackMan data collection system to help hitters and pitchers better understand the physics behind the physical.
“I just realized that the game keeps going and it’s gonna go without me if I don’t pay attention and learn some of this,” Hurdle said. “I didn’t want to be the grumpy old man.
“I got friends that are out of the game right now because they are the grumpy old man. And you know, the game has changed. People have changed. Major League Baseball is not worried about selling tickets to a 65-year-old guy like me.”
The bottom line, though, is that Hurdle is enjoying his time working with players and staff that are the future of the game.
“I can remember back when, and I just I’m so excited for what’s in front of them and how they go about it,” he said. “The one thing I can share with them, because I’ve had a lot of failures, I can tell them what won’t work. They might want to try it on their own, but I can tell them these are things I did that all they did was complicate matters.”
He professes that at this stage, he does not miss pulling on the uniform every night.
“I was 17 years as big league manager. Six years as a big league hitting coach, 10 years as a player. That was a lot. I was in the game at the right time for me. And I feel like this is the place I need to be now.”